You know about the expense and the grime; you know the storied history and which of the buildings you should visit. You know where the good museums are; you know what you want to eat; you know you don’t want to see a musical on Broadway, no matter who’s paying. You’ve been before; you were a kid. You know a nickel is bigger than a dime. You know Jake Gyllenhaal lives here, and probably Maggie as well. You know what a brownstone looks like, and a fire escape; you have watched Friends and Sex and the City and even, once, Seinfeld. You have seen Frances Ha now and, some time ago, When Harry Met Sally and the first twenty minutes of Manhattan Murder Mystery. New York belongs to you as much as it belongs to any person with a television or the wherewithal to see a movie. It is yours, Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z and Alicia Keys said so. Or they said it was theirs, which is by way of saying they know you want it, too.
But what they never tell you is that New York City doesn’t have its shit together. Buildings creak and moan; they bubble with scaffolding and canvas, and the wooden frames of 100-year-old buildings peek out like the skeletons of old lady ghosts. Trash goes on the side of the streets, or just on the street. Whenever you buy something, you amass polystyrene and plastic and soft paper napkins. No one seems to know about recycling. The image of a pyramid made from waste comes to you every time you eat a meal out, like the upwards-surging tip of a trash iceberg that will someday melt to cover the city’s entire surface. The G train does not run. One day you have to take five different trains instead of two. If you happen to be in a car, you feel the potholes and notice iron plates laid in the road like failed tectonics.
They never told you that the food is a crapshoot. That even some of the town’s best bagels are oversweet, gigantic, and you can’t just walk into any place and expect a good time. You can’t afford to eat at the nice places – not if you want to eat regularly throughout the year – so you follow your friends to the Chinese place where you can fill a tray with food for $3, and you laugh at the idea of buying organic produce or any ingredient you won’t use more than five times. You buy rice, vegetables, salt and pepper. They never tell you that although the fruit in California tastes like the sun, by the time it gets to New York it has absorbed the smell of the refrigerator or the truck, or a combination – it tastes of the street.
Still, your housemates seem nice. Jordan makes a Pokémon zine, Rahul works at Google, Alan is an art teacher. Christina is the sweetest; she writes you a long email about where to get good sandwiches, where to take your laundry and where you could get vegan food if you wanted. Her name strikes a gentle bell in your memory; you look her up on the internet and find out she played drums on your favourite album from when you were seventeen. You don’t play the album at home for weeks in case she comes home and hears you. Maybe you should have, maybe you would now be better friends. You feel like you haven’t made a new friend ever before. How did you do it, all those times?
All the rats, darting between the train tracks.
They never tell you that the city has a lot going on because it has to, because no one is staying for the weather. Winter is pretty, but the icy sidewalks are treacherous. The rain takes delight in seriously pouring down: shoe-ruining, trajectory-diverting, plan-disrupting sheets of rain. You see a woman shove her nice handbag into a postbox during a downpour; it’s saved, in a way. Wide, deep puddles strand strangers together under a postage stamp’s worth of awning and you don’t get to dinner until 9pm. And then the summer: humidity hanging low within the streets’ grid, collecting subway steam and rotting smells and human sweat. Maybe ten days a year are good. It shouldn’t be worth it, but it is.
There’s a lot to see but you don’t see it. In this new apartment, you’re living on your own for the first time, and it’s winter, and your coat is thinner than it should be, and you don’t have the right shoes for the snow. Lying down is medicine, you’ve always known, and every day you don’t need to see a doctor is a triumph. What did you do in New York? You watched Law and Order. You watched old telemovies. You didn’t see any live music or eat at that place that got reviewed in the Times or even walk in the park all that much. You saw the ladies dancing in the square. You walked up and down the stairs. You didn’t want to go outside. It’s not until you move out of that neighbourhood that you realise why. Perhaps it’s just you noticing, but you’ve seen more stooped-over people here, young and old, than you ever have at home. They don’t have jobs. Old men and women collect bottles from your rubbish. You’re harassed every time you leave the house. It’s alive with noise: locals hawking spit, carousing, turnt up, arguing; music-playing, working, scattering individuals. The sidewalks feel minuscule. Your body feels huge. Everyone looks at you. Your hair is the wrong colour, you’re dressed wrong. People look at you and they spit on the street and they ash their cigarettes. You don’t leave the house until you leave the area altogether and you never want to go back, or at least not for a long time.
You’re not used to paying people’s wages straight from your pocket. You want to know how much to tip, but you’re poor too, and you’re angry when you discover that coins – even big, shiny quarters – aren’t considered acceptable. It’s real money, and you don’t know why they’re rejecting it when you could use it – to buy an apple, to wash your clothes, to spin on your sloping apartment floor. Once, absent-mindedly, you under-tip and then guiltily over-tip the next person at the next place – but you know that’s not how it works. Your friend tells you how she used to earn $2.50 an hour and you try to remember that – you’re not earning anything an hour right now, but you’re the one buying a sandwich, so you can’t talk. But you’ve forgotten about tax too, so you stand at the counter and fumble for a while in this city that doesn’t tolerate slowness.
Every time a dog looks you in the eye, your heart breaks with gratitude and you feel like a lunatic.
No one told you that you’d get fat, fatter than you’ve ever been before; so fat you can no longer tell which mirrors are showing your real size. All you know is you can’t fit into your clothes anymore and you can’t afford to replace them either. But it’s winter and it’s cold, you’re hibernating; you’re thirty now, your metabolism is slow; you sleep in until midday; everything here is a burger; they put corn syrup in everything, even bread, how were you supposed to know? When your father sees you for the first time in months the first thing he’ll say, with dismay, is a remark about your weight. All you can do is smile with one side of your mouth, seeing the top of your plump cheek out of the corner of your eye.
They didn’t tell you that, even though you dread clothing and unclothing yourself because this tells you each day how much bigger you are, you would love your body more than ever. You’ve never seen such an array of bodies. In the humid heat you wear tiny shorts for the first time in years; you wear lycra; you buy things that stretch and gently hug the whole of you. It’s hot, so hot. You don’t care. Your skin glows and you don’t care at all. You sweat like a mountain hiker and you don’t care. Perfect tiny drops of perspiration form on your face like dew on cut flowers. You don’t feel beautiful, but maybe you are a deep-sea dragon with water on its brow, and everywhere else.
They didn’t tell you that you’d meet David Byrne.
And no one ever told you just how many Australians would be here. People laugh at you because the places you like to go are where all the Australians go – the cafes where there’s enough space to sit down without rubbing elbows with the next guy. If there happen to be surfboards there, so be it. You don’t want to be on the street. You’ve met some of the best people you’ve ever met amongst the miraculous Americans you know, you’re covering yourself in honey and happily bee-stung; but whenever you meet an Australian you feel released from the task of interpreting Americanisms and America itself. You can laugh and roll your eyes with them and tell jokes that they will get. You can flip the bird at the Prime Minister from half the world away but you will eventually sober up because no matter how bad it is at home it will never be as bad – or as good – as it is here. You’re lucky to be here, but you will never feel comfortable. Not while you don’t have health insurance or a rental guarantor or an income over the Australian minimum wage or a parent here or a car or a gynaecologist or a decent beach where you can drink.
They don’t tell you, either, that you find yourself slipping into Nicole Kidman English so much more easily than you might have thought. It’s not that you’ve forgotten where you came from, but more that you don’t want every interaction you have with a waiter or shop clerk to take twice as long. For someone who doesn’t like to repeat herself, you sure end up repeating yourself a lot, until you figure out that vocalising the ‘r’, slamming your foot down on some kind of rhotic brake, helps. They don’t tell you that Americans view your unenunciated ‘r’ as an open parenthesis and look at you quizzically until you remember to make that sound, like a cartoon lion pretending to be mad. Now you even do it when you don’t have to; your Australian-Confucian social training has taught you to be accommodating to everyone all the time, why shouldn’t you make it easier for people to understand what you’re saying? And they don’t know where you’re from anyway; they think you’re from England, South Africa, even New Zealand, sometimes, before they think of your wide brown land.
But it’s not just your accent that slips. Everyone wants to know what your story is and you have to tell them. You can’t avoid talking about yourself, the way you’ve always done. It’s just not the American way. If you demur, they are perplexed. Eyebrows clench, nostrils narrow. Why can’t you? It’s a survival mechanism, deflecting attention from yourself, but you work on getting better. You can state the basics of who you are: where you come from, what you do, what you want to do. It’s that last one you have the most trouble with. You’re so used to keeping your cards close and telling yourself lies. But here you’re just one dribble off the side of an ice-cream cone. No one much minds if you fall right off but they want to help you up if they can. After a while you are okay with it. After a while you are much better at looking people in the eye when they ask you questions; you use complete sentences. You wonder what other parts of yourself you might be able to break open, what other shards of your old self you could set aside. You feel naked in a good way, and not at all vulnerable.
At one point during their time living here, one of your friends could only afford to eat two eggs a day. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe used to tell each other stories instead of eating. Hunger’s not the worst thing that can happen; the worst thing would be going back to that old version of yourself, the one pleasantly folded beneath the seat like a safety vest.
And you know you’re dewy-eyed, that you’re in love in a way you’ve never been before. You’re in love with being free, with being a different version of yourself. Some people tell you they hate it here and some people tell you it’ll take a year before you even like it. But you love it straight away and you feel like a stupid girl, a dumb tourist with the dumb luck to have grown up in a country that cared about the strength of your body and the health of your teeth. You meet someone who says it took them eight years to love New York, but you love it from the beginning and you feel stupid. For you, it might go in reverse; you might start in love and grow to alienation, but for now, it’s good, it’s wonderful, it’s great.
They never tell you what it’s like to be a cliché. They never tell you that sometimes clichés are true. Maybe they just look like that from afar because the colours are brighter, more vibrant. Sometimes they are clichés because of repetitive motion; desire lines are thick here. Whatever it is, you made it here. Whatever it is, you’re here now.